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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #9 (February 25-March 3, 2003), page 11.

Candidates for compassion

Family Matters

By Rohinton Mistry

Alfred A. Knopf, 2002

Hardcover, 434 pages, $26.00

By Josephine Bridges

"Last week, the phone company was laying state-of-the-art fiber-optic cable near my house, but the ditch was being dug with pickaxes and spades, the rubble carried away on womenís heads," narrates one of the many splendid minor characters in this novel. Painstaking in detail yet epic in scope, Family Matters, set in mid-1990s Bombay, is the story of a small, troubled family and a large, troubled city.

Nariman Vakeel, a professor of English literature whose years have already held their share of tragedy, finds respite from the Parkinsonís disease which is slowly killing him by exploring the world outside the ironically named "Chateau Felicity," where he lives in discord with his stepchildren.

When he breaks his leg on a walk he takes against stepdaughter Coomyís advice, she adds yet another resentment against him to her burgeoning list. Some readers will dismiss her as lazy and conniving, while others may find her overwhelmed and empathize with her distress, if not her strategies to ease it. With the reluctant help of her brother Jal, who fiddles with his hearing aid rather than take a position in the ongoing conflict, Coomy crafts a scheme to foist Narimanís care onto their stepsister Roxana.

Roxana may well be a saint. Already crowded into a tiny apartment in "Pleasant Villa" with her husband and two sons, she takes in her father and uncomplainingly adds his care to a daily schedule already full and a purse nearly empty. The boys are believable and delightful children. Elder brother Murad mutters that if he always had to wait until he was older, "there would be so much piled up for him to do, there would be no time for it all." When a classmate bribes younger brother Jehangir, a homework monitor, he looks at the money and thinks, "A small packet of butter. Or mutton for one meal. Or a week of eggs for Daddyís breakfast. Thatís what he was holding in his hand."

Roxanaís husband Yezad, the novelís most complex character, links family life to work, politics, and religion. A man swinging between extremes, he watches his wife care for Nariman with unfaltering gentleness and generosity, and he watches the old manís deterioration. "If you knew a person long enough," he muses, "he could elicit every kind of emotion from you, every possible reaction, envy, admiration, pity, irritation, fondness, jealousy, love, disgust. But in the end all human beings became candidates for compassion." Sadly, Yezad retreats into a fundamentalist interpretation of a faith that gives him solace, and his blindness to his own intolerance threatens the repetition of a terrible history.

Family Matters is, at its shallowest level, a deftly wrought cautionary tale. At its deepest, it is a testament to the passion, kindness, and insight displayed by human beings at their best. Yezadís boss, Mr. Kapur, is not a native of Bombay, and he claims his love for the city is superior to a nativeís. "Itís the difference between being born into a religion and converting to it," he explains.

Six doors down from Mr. Kapurís sporting goods shop, the proprietor of a bookstore reads and writes letters for clients, and realizes that there is a pattern in the collection of letters. "If it were possible to read letters for all of humanity, compose an infinity of responses on their behalf, he would have a Godís-eye view of the world, and be able to understand it."

Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry received the seventh annual Kiriyama Prize for this, his third novel. The prize is awarded in recognition of books that promote greater understanding of and among the nations of the Pacific Rim and South Asian subcontinent. Thanks to the deep current of wisdom coursing through Family Matters, readers can broaden their understanding not only of contemporary India, but all humanity.


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